Rats! A Plague Tale: Innocence has been in my headspace for quite a while. I saw it on three separate E3s as it was being developed, and with each visit, I got to see a continuous evolution of a core idea that grossed me out from the very first time it was introduced to me: a world immersed in dark, overrun by rats. And now that the game is finally out, I got to experience the entirety of its story, live in its world for the thirteen hours it took me to finish it, and by golly, I’m still itching all over, even though it’s been a little while since I’ve finished it.
A Plague Tale: Innocence takes place in the 14th century, as the Inquisition is dead set on making a power play within the Church during a plague that’s taken ahold of France. You emerge as the daughter of a rich French family that’s attacked and ransacked by enemy soldiers under the Inquisition banner, who are looking to capture your sickly brother who so far only seen the world through books under the watchful gaze of your estranged mother. She makes it out alive with her brother, and is pointed towards a friend of the family who might be able to help alleviate whatever ails the little boy.
From there, A Plague Tale takes many dark turns, as the siblings have to not only deal with the plague, the rats that carry it, and most of all, the pursuing enemy forces led by a fanatical masked captain. The game’s backdrop is brilliantly executed: it made me feel like I was trudging through a slowly decaying medieval world, and for as absurd as some of the events of the game might get, I really got a sense of what might have been like to be in the middle of an outbreak around that time in history.
One particularly disturbing part of the game – that I already had caught a glimpse of during the last demo that I saw at E3 last year – had Amicia and Hugo traverse a battlefield chock full of corpses, all the while having to deal with the rats and looters, as well as their pursuers. It’s really effective in absolutely grossing and shocking me out, and the game kept upping things from there on.
Detail plays a double part in A Plague Tale: Innocence. When it comes to delivering its world and making you feel part of it, it’s absolutely brilliant, thanks not only to the aforementioned world building, but also due to its believable cast of characters, even down to the fanatical and sometimes comic book villains. But there are parts of it that are off as well. When it comes to gameplay, there are certain aspects of it that don’t make a lot of sense, which break the immersion and take away from the game as a whole.
A Plague Tale starts out as a strict stealth game that gives you little room for error. At the beginning, you’re not given a lot to defend yourself with outside of a sling and some rocks, so keeping out of view is paramount. Since the rat waves only attack if you step into the dark, keeping yourself in the light proves to be the first big challenge. As the game develops, you get a handful of different ammo types and alchemical potions, which help in turning the odds to your favor. Some allow you to crowd control enemy soldiers, while others even make use of the rats to your advantage.
Thing is, the imminent danger brought out by the Mickey Mouse wannabes scurrying about is somewhat played down by same mechanic that make them so horrific, since the game is sometimes pretty loose with its rules of whether or not you can be overwhelmed by stepping into the shadow. There are moments when simply touching a dark spot leads to an insta-death, and others, quite the opposite, which makes a some deaths fell cheap and unfair. Granted, these issues happen somewhat rarely, but it’s still annoying having to replay a certain section over and over.
While these problems might be a tad frustrating, it’s pretty cool how light works its way into the confines of the game’s environmental puzzles. Due to the fact that rats avoid it at all costs, you can put it to use in a variety of ways, even to direct them into enemies, dispatching them in the process, distracting the furry menace allowing you to pass by safely. At the early portions of the game, you’ll pretty much have to make use of light because of your lack of appropriate tools, but even when you do obtain some, it’s still incredibly useful, and even gets further use in more refined ways.
It’s a slight shame that the pacing of the game is so tightly guided by its linearity. Most levels are a straight shot through, with very little in the way of path choices or rewards for going off the beaten path, outside of a handful of alchemical materials tucked into a corner or two, or the few collectibles you can pick up for a bit of color dialogue between the two siblings. There’s only a couple exceptions that allow a very limited space for going outside the path, but even so, they happen to be short and not at all different. That’s not to say that the main way through is bad, but a bit of variety goes a long way.
Even if there’s no character progression in the way of learning new skills or leveling up, the bane of adventure games like this for me, there’s a crafting system, which is just about the second worst offender in my book. Thankfully, A Plague Tale doesn’t make you scrounge for components as it’s extremely generous with them, so if you are mindful and don’t rush through, you can find enough items to craft all needed ammunition, potions, and even most of the gear upgrades — these range from bigger crafting bags to a stronger sling, which are darn useful. It’s a good thing that there’s so much to pick up and use, because if you’re planning on maxing out, you better do it in a single run, since there’s no new game plus equivalent this time around.
Innocence represents Medieval France in a way that’s very rarely seen in games. It’s positively grotesque, but at the same time beautiful, thanks to wonderful art direction by developer Asobo. The progression in which nature slowly decays around Amicia and Hugo is terrifying, and you’ll know you’re nearing the end of the game by just looking at your surroundings. A Plague Tale is definitely not for the queasy, and even if you’re not, its gross visuals are a grim spectacle that won’t soon forget.
It’s always fantastic when a game surpasses my expectations, and I can safely say that’s the case with A Plague Tale: Innocence. Even if its run time felt a tad too long by the end, it was still one hell of a ride. Mechanically, there are issues here and there, but overall, I had a blast clearing it. Thanks to a strong setting, a decent story, and the great interaction between the siblings and the friends they meet along the way — rats or no rats! — A Plague Tale is very much worth checking out.